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The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris
Stephen Budiansky
263 pp.




The Wag Chats with
Stephen Budiansky

Science writer Stephen Budiansky discusses animal nature, delineates his differences with animal rights activists and discusses the most fulfilling elements of science writing.

In The Truth About Dogs, you relentlessly debunk the notion that dogs show anthropomorphic traits like loyalty, sympathy or guilt and instead declare them whoppingly successful social 'parasites.' On the other hand, you readily acknowledge your own deep and abiding affection for dogs. What should the level-headed, scientifically informed dog owner expect of his dog, and is that enough to keep the bond strong?

Budiansky: Dogs unquestionably experience many of the same emotions we do—love, anger, lust, fear, loneliness. But there is pretty solid evidence from experiments and observation that they just can't make the leap to understanding that other beings experience thoughts or feelings different from theirs. And that means that emotions that depend upon imagining how others feel—such as sympathy, or envy, or even loyalty, are probably beyond dogs' capability.

That doesn't bother me, because I love them for what they are. I wouldn't like dogs to be just furry little people. And probably more than that I am fascinated by them. Dogs look at the world in some ways that are very different from our own, and that amazing window on the natural world is one of the great benefits we gain from sharing our lives with dogs—as long as we are honest in our view of them.

WAG: What harm (if any) is done when dog owners decide, despite the evidence, to treat their dogs as if they really do feel loyalty, sympathy, guilt, etc.?

Budiansky: Well, this is a crucial point, because the number one reason I think it's so important to have an honest view of dogs and to be on guard against anthropomorphism is that anthropomorphism is bad for dogs. It's not just some philosophical argument; it has very real practical consequences. If you think your dog "knows" he's been "bad" when he tears through the garbage while you're gone and that he's doing it deliberately to annoy you, you are going to start getting resentful and probably punish the dog in ways that are in fact going to be useless and probably even counterproductive. If you think your dog is showing you affection when he jumps up on you and puts his paws on your shoulders—that is, if you anthropomorphically interpret that as a "hug," as many dog owners do—you are heading for big trouble, since from the dog's viewpoint this is an expression of his dominance—which you are actually reinforcing. Dominance aggression is probably the leading reason people wind up relinquishing their dogs over to shelters. So the point is that dogs that are treated as children are not happy dogs and are often profoundly uncomfortable with their place in society.

WAG: In The Truth About Dogs, you refer to animal rights activists as "animal rightsniks." Where do you disagree with them, primarily?

Budiansky: Primarily? Let's see...for starters, on moral, biological, social, legal, philosophical, evolutionary, and aesthetic grounds. I think the animal rights movement sometimes shows a profound ignorance of the very animals they profess to champion. And I don't think it makes any sense to try to apply the human legal, social concept of rights to the natural world, which is fundamentally amoral. We have vast responsibilities, as thinking human beings, to other species and to the natural world. We also rightly should take joy and wonder in the natural world. But I am struck by how sterile and bitter and crabbed a view of animals the animal rightists often take.

WAG: How do you go about organizing a book like The Truth About Dogs? So much of it is derived from extended research that it would seem hard to structure the book—to know, precisely, what you are writing about—before you've actually done the legwork. Do you, in fact, know roughly what you're after before you begin researching topics or do you (at least initially) browse casually?

Budiansky: It's possible, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, to do some quick and broad searches through the scientific literature to get an initial sense of what's being studied out there. I also had a good sense of the general fields of dog research that are going on because of the trawling I had done for my previous book, The Nature of Horses. Obviously everyone who sets out to write something as long as a book has a rough idea of where he wants to go with it. But the short answer is that you never can—and perhaps this is my journalistic background—but I also think you never should—even think about writing a final outline for a book, article, essay, or haiku for that matter until you've done the reporting. On the way you always find new things that are going to force you to constantly revise your thoughts and plans.

WAG: Unless you're a walking encyclopedia, you must have found yourself saying "Ah ha!" while doing your research. What surprised you most while working on The Truth About Dogs?

Budiansky: I think the genetic studies on the interrelatedness between dog breeds was the biggest eye opener for me. I had known that dog breeds were probably of fairly recent origin, but it was quite striking to see such powerful evidence that there had been a worldwide flow of genes for tens of thousands of years among dogs, and that all of these nice stories about the separate and ancient origins of certain breeds were probably hogwash.

WAG: You've written five books about nature and science. Which came first for you—a general interest in writing or an abiding interest in nature and science?

Budiansky: I have to say it wasn't one or the other. I've always been interested in both, and science writing is the best way to get to do both.

WAG: What are the most satisfying elements of science writing? And what are the most difficult?

Budiansky: The best thing is that it's terrific for people with short attention spans. A colleague of mine at U.S. News & World Report once said to me that what was great was that you get to become the world's greatest expert on something new each week—and then you never have to do it again. That is of course a tongue-in-cheek overstatement, but the rewards of being able to learn about something entirely new for each project you tackle are what keep me going. That is, of course, also the difficulty of this business, but that's what makes it so satisfying.

WAG: What other science writers do you admire? And what is it about their writing you value over other science writers'?

Budiansky: I think one of the pieces of popular science writing I still admire most is Richard Rhodes's "The Making of the Atomic Bomb". He's not exactly a "science writer" in that he writes about a lot of other things, but his ability to understand and explain some extremely tough science—and above all to place it in a human and historical context—is just superb in that book. My friend and colleague Matt Ridley (author of "Genome" most recently) is another science writer who I greatly admire; I think what I like about his writing is the way he can popularize a very difficult subject in a very entertaining manner, yet without a hint of pandering or oversimplifying, which is the curse of so many science writers.

WAG: Finally, are you working on a book-length project now?

Budiansky: Cats is next, also for Viking. My book on codebreaking in World War II, (Battle of Wits, Free Press) just came out as well, and down the road I am very interested in doing another book on war and technology and the intersection between the two.

—Interview conducted by Woody Arbunkle

Posted December 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Martha Polkey

Stephen Budiansky is currently a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. His five books include If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, The Nature of Horses and, most recently, The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris. He and his wife and children raise Merino sheep and keep their horses on their farm in northern Virginia.



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